How High-intensity Exercise Boosts Memory

The health advantages of high-intensity exercise are widely known but new research from McMaster University points to another major benefit: Better memory. The findings could have implications for an ageing population, which is grappling with the growing problem of catastrophic diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The study, published in the ‘Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience’, shines light on how scientists have found that six weeks of intense exercise – short bouts of interval training over the course of 20 minutes – showed significant improvements in what is known as high-interference memory which, for example, allows us to distinguish our car from another of the same make and model. The findings are important because memory performance of the study participants increased over a relatively short period of time. For the study, 95 participants completed six weeks of exercise training, combined exercise and cognitive training or no training (the control group which did neither and remained sedentary). Both the exercise and combined training groups improved performance on a high-interference memory task, while the control group did not. The researchers also found that participants who experienced greater fitness gains also experienced greater increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth, function and survival of brain cells.

Says Jennifer Heisz, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster and lead author of the study, “Improvements in this type of memory from exercise might help to explain the previously established link between aerobic exercise and better academic performance. At the other end of our lifespan, as we reach our senior years, we might expect to see even greater benefits in individuals with memory impairment brought on by conditions such as dementia.”

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